Write What You Don’t Know.

Teachers and professors tell young writers, “Write what you know.” And there’s a certain truth to that idea. If I try to write about a cricket match, but I don’t know anything about the game, have never played it, have never watched it, don’t know the rules, and am not sure I can name 5 countries where the sport is played, I’m not going to write an excellent scene that includes the sport.

In the same way, being a high school teacher and having a teenager myself, I recognize when “young adult” authors clearly don’t know much about teenagers and are too far removed from the personal experience to do the subject justice. Their “teenagers” – for example – never swear or only think & act in culturally competent ways.

So writing what you know is a good piece of advice. Or maybe it’s not…

Recently, an editor told me that I couldn’t have a Latino narrator in one of my stories because I wasn’t “Mexican enough.” That’s a strange thing to say in any context, but especially odd since my grandmother is Mexican and I do speak and read Spanish. But apparently – in that editor’s eyes – this piece of fiction was an example of me trying to write what I didn’t know.

I recognize that politically correct mores have permeated everything in our culture – and I’m sure that this particular editor is simply a politically correct conservative – but her command (her imperative?) made me think of the idea on a larger scale.

Should Margaret Atwood not have written the science fiction novel within The Blind Assassin?

Should Cormac McCarthy not have written John Grady’s Mexican prison scenes simply because McCarthy had never been incarcerated?

Should Toni Morrison not have any Caucasian characters or narrators in any of her novels or stories?

Again, I could go on and on.

And where would this idea stop? What would be its limit? Why would we allow for this type of censorship of creative possibilities?

So – to keep this piece short – I’d say that instead of the old “write what you know” adage, I’d say it’s fine (and good) to write what you don’t know as long as you’re willing to learn about it.

With encyclopedias, empathy, books, neighbors, friends, coffee shops, Youtube, relatives, films, traveling, and curiosity as basic starting points, what can we not learn? What can we not write about?

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Maybe The Pace Of This American Life Is Wrong?

Sometimes when I drive to a youth soccer game three hours away, I think, “Wait, why are we doing this? Why do we spend so much time and money on a game for kids? Also, in most of the world the local children play barefoot, with a half-deflated ball, on the beach or in the local vacant lot, and they still end up being better players than U.S. teenagers.” Our whole youth soccer club system is a broken mess, yet we…I mean…I, I have spent so much time and money on the system.

This is just one example. A microcosm. Maybe we Americans have it wrong. In soccer. In other things. It seems like we always find a way to spend a lot of money and drive long distances, for everything.

Or what about the pace of daily life? Driving, stressing, too much homework, complicated play-date schedules, expensive kids’ birthday parties. What are we doing? Why are we living this way?

My family is doing better than it was. We got rid of our second car a few years ago and try to bike or carpool most places. Recently we pulled our older daughter out of club soccer and put her in a cheap local kids’ league. We let our other daughter trade organized sports for “pretend time,” skateboarding, and jumping on the trampoline with friends. We’re encouraging our kids to explore in the local fields or small plot of woods near our house rather than play inside.

But we’ve also tried to drop out as a family a few times. We started small and built from there. Three times we’ve pulled our girls out of school in the middle of the year to go somewhere else, to experience something different. The first was a nine-day camping trip in the fall in Yosemite when the tourists were gone from the valley, the bears were out, and the nights were colder. And even though that trip was short, during the time that we were gone, the girls missed two soccer practices, two soccer games, two friends’ birthday parties, and at least twelve hours of overwhelming homework.

In Yosemite, we swam in the Merced River, saw nine different bears (including a mother bear and her two cubs who wandered past our tent in the high country), rock climbed, bouldered, went to the LeConte Museum, hiked, and saw a cougar eating a ground squirrel. But mostly we did nothing. We played card games and read for hours in our tent. We sat and watched birds. We put on snorkel gear and followed fish up through river eddies. The trade for six days of school and nine days of daily life was well worth it.

Then, last year, we went to Tucson for three and a half weeks in the winter. We stayed in a house in the Santa Catalina mountains and hiked, canyoneered, swam in creeks and the local pool, got sun on our skin, climbed a little, explored ruins, and hung out by the fireplace at night. Ruth got stung by a scorpion on her hand but she still loved the trip, and it was wonderful being away from everything we missed at home, more social engagements and school requirements than I can possibly list.

And now, we’ve taken another break from This American Life. We scheduled a trip this winter to Central America, planned it for February and March. I took a leave of absence from my day job to work on my fifth book (my third novel), and we pulled the girls out of school again. We’ve been in Congrejal, Costa Rica, for the past month, 1 kilometer outside of a tiny two-block by three-block town on the Pacific Coast.

We rented a small native house en el campo. There are fires in the ditches at night – burning palm fronds – large spiders and centipedes and black scorpions and beetles in our house, dirt roads, incredible stars with zero light pollution, and yellow beaches two miles long. The food is different, scary sometimes (we chance food poisoning each time we eat out – but that’s not often as we mostly eat rice and beans and local fruit at home). There is no rock climbing but I climb coconut trees on the beach, cut down three or four coconuts, cut them open and drink the milk with my nine-year-old Ruthie or Jennie.

My thirteen-year-old, Rain, is surfing and reading and journaling. Both girls are home-schooling, and we get their work completed each day in three or four hours. We’re reading world history together as a family. Learning the geography of Central America. Studying native plants and animals of our local area.

The nouns are different here. Back at home we see squirrels in the trees. Here we see Howler Monkeys. Estuaries in Western Oregon have carp and frogs. Here they have 16-foot crocodiles.

We have wild horses and coatis in our yard.

We surf each day.

I write 1000 new words on my novel.

We bike around because we have no car.

We stay outside until after dark, live outside everyday, and even though it averages 98-degrees, we’ve adapted now and the days no longer feel too hot.

Jennie pumps her fist in the air and yells, “I love that there are no rules here!” as we bike along a pot-hole filled road, wearing no helmets. There are no stoplights or stop-signs even in the town nearby where people lay on their horns and yell at each other, drive on the wrong side of the road or swerve all over the place in their cars. Motorcycles pass us going 60.

What would we be doing back home right now? I’d be working 60 hours a week. There would be dance practices and soccer practices and games and performances. We would have play dates, drive regularly, be late all of the time. We would have to work to be local. But when the location is small, like it is here, localism is natural, unforced, nothing difficult. We eat the limes and cashew fruit from the trees next to our house. And there are more green plantains than we can fry.

I know that we can’t live in a perpetual state of vacation, but maybe that’s not what this is. I’m working here. The girls are doing schoolwork. Jennie and the girls are making art together. Our lives and the development of our minds has not stopped.

So maybe this is just a richer life? Maybe there is no one named Jones to keep up with. Maybe we – as a family – must stop every year, stop to think and read and write and hang out, as a family, because these years will end soon, and the girls will go to college, and we will have missed our opportunity to take them out of their culture, out of the daily speed of U.S. city life.

In ten years, both girls will be out of the house and this will no longer be possible. They will be leading other lives. They won’t want to be dragged to Central America by their parents. They will have their own chosen obligations. They will lead their own lives of personal interests.

And our chances will be over.

So for now, a slow life, something different, something other than the daily pace of life in the United States. Here, for a moment, we avoid (as Tim Kreider of the New York Times says) The Busy Trap.

And the soccer here? We play every day on the beach, barefoot, with the local boys. We play on the sand, goals scored through two sticks stuck one meter apart. We call the barefoot game “Pelada,” which translates as the crazy naked woman.

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild And Her Victory With Backstory

As I’m reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (am I the two-millionth reader, the three-millionth?), I keep being impressed by one thing.  More than her voice, which is clear and singular, her brave journey, her incredible story, or her honesty, I’m so impressed by Strayed’s ability to write backstory.

As Benjamin Percy advises his students at Iowa State, an emerging writer should never write backstory.  Never, never, never.  How much backstory to include?  None at all.  The idea of backstory being necessary is a weird fallacy that emerging writers feel.  In Poets & Writers, Percy writes, “the impulse to explain will insult your audience.  That’s their job – part of the pleasure of reading is inference, filling in the blanks and becoming a participant in the narrative, a coauthor.”

And we don’t want to insult our audiences.

Until Wild, strayed was by very definition an emerging writer, with few major writing credits to her name.  Yet she gambled and wrote backstory in her first big book.  Lots of backstory.  Tons in fact.

But it worked.  Strayed’s backstory is as important and intriguing as her present, yet not more intriguing than her present.  And as I read the book, I wonder.  How did she do that?  How does a reader want to be on the Pacific Crest Trail with Strayed (in the present) yet also want to know everything that happened before?  How did she write such excellent competing stories in two time periods in one book?

In my first book, The End of Boys, I wove backstory in short, in-scene, thematic vignettes.  I was scared of slowing the reader, and I kept those mini-scenes incredible brief and full of action verbs. I knew I was in danger of what I call “The A Prayer For Owen Meany Problem,” after one of my favorite books and its one major flaw.

In A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving’s present story in the novel, the story of Owen and Hester and the narrator and everything else, is so excellent that the reader hates (and I mean HATES) the backstory-like-flash-forwards to Canada.  Changing time periods almost kills the novel even though the novel is brilliant.  Thus, everyone I know skims those scenes.  But because I hate to skim, I sludged through them and detested Irving for a few minutes each time.

In my new book, Graphic The Valley, I wrote a lot of backstory in the first few drafts.  The backstory seemed central to the novel’s development and I couldn’t find a way to put it in present tense.  But my wife Jennie and my agent Adriann made it clear that the backstory wasn’t good.  It didn’t improve the novel.  Adriann made an observational judgement when she said, “You sure do like that italicized backstory, huh?”

And I knew how bad it was.  So I cleaned it up.  Cut almost all of it.  Thought about how Cormac McCarthy was disciplined in his use of other voice, a narrative break, in No Country For Old Men.  I realized that I had to keep my breaks short once again.  Avoid most backstory.  Maintain discipline.

But discipline is difficult for me.  I struggle.  And I’m not Cheryl Strayed either.  I don’t know how to write equally compelling stories in the same book.

Reading The Dark

 

I wrote three stories recently and sent them to my agent Adriann and my friend Courtney.  Describing the three shorts stories, I told them, “The first one is dark, the next is sort of funny, and the third is darker.”  I thought I was being accurate.

 

But after reading the first story, Adriann and Courtney said that it was sad.  A little dark, but mostly sad.  I said, “Don’t worry, the next one is funnier, not so heavy.”

 

A few days later, Courtney called me and said, “That second story wasn’t funny at all.  It was dark dark.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yeah, like Twin Peaks dark.”

“Oh,” I said.  “I thought it was funny.”

Maybe that was just him, his reaction, and maybe he related it to something personal, something that wasn’t funny in his own life.  But then Adriann emailed and wrote, “This second story made me sad.  It wasn’t funny.  It made me think about my dad.”

 

And I said, “Okay, um…I don’t think you guys should even read the third story.  Just leave that one.”

Obviously, I have no idea what’s funny anymore, or my sense of funny is so skewed, become so dark, that I’ve lost the thread of common, decent humor.  I’m not even going to say what I thought was funny in the second story beyond the fact that one “funny” scene involves an arm getting ripped off in a car accident.  In the right context, that’s funny, right?

I’m learning that if a person reads Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark and Blood Meridian, The Stories of Breese D’J Pancake, Harry Crews’ Feast of Snakes, and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, he’s going to develop a pretty dark sense of humor.

 

 

 

 

 

On Not Being Good Enough – The Beginning Writer’s Life

This summer, I’m reading minor works by major authors.  So far, I’ve read:

1. Dust Tracks On the Road by Zora Neal Hurston (which was bad, really bad, awful, and exposed her as someone who shouldn’t try to be funny)

2. Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway (not a good collection although a few stories are worth reading)

3. The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor (incredible writing – she always writes well – although the story makes Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark seem sort of light and uplifting)

4. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (if this is Jane Austen’s worst, I feel sorry for the rest of the world’s writers – I loved this book and it’s brilliant dialogue)

And now, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, an intersting reading experience.  I know what Morrison is doing in this book.  I know her well enough that I can see what she was attempting.  I see why she wrote what I’ll call section one (for those of you who’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean) and why section one had to fail, had to confuse, had to die out and get boring for section two to work.  Morrison was going for great, not just good.  And after all her success – most importantly, this was after Song of Solomon – Morrison wanted something new and astounding.  She wanted to dazzle the writing community with her deepest work.  And she does get to another level with her use of perspective in this novel.  But…

Most readers won’t get there.  They’ll start to get bored with the tedious and trivial fighting between what are truly two boring married characters.  Morrison tries to write out of her comfort zone and it doesn’t work.  But I still admire her attempt.  And, honestly, I can’t write better even within what I understand.  Not yet.  What I want to do and what I’m capable of doing are not equal.  I want these great stories and these first novels that are eloquent and subtle and tragic, but I’m not there.  I need to do more work.  I need to write every day for ten mores years.  And then, after all that, if I do produce a great work, I still might fail after, might fail with my next work.  Like others have before.  Like the writers I’m reading this summer.  But failure is as important as success.

Book Recs For Northwest Book Lovers

Northwest Book Lovers asked me to be part of the “28 Authors, 28 Variations on a List” group.  One author each day, each author recommending five books (although I chose 7 since I  like the number 7 more than the number 5 – you know).

Here’s the link.

On Becoming a Better Writer…(Failing Writer #26)

This is a simple reading proposal –

Undergraduate and MFA writing classes teach this adage:  Read the greats to understand greatness.  Read only the best to become the best.

And that makes sense.  So, of course, I did.  And I do.

But I tweaked the idea.

Over the past few years, starting with ten books a summer (and 10 to 20 books throughout the rest of the year), I’ve followed a reading plan that has significantly improved my own fiction writing.  And it goes like this:

Starting with the collective bodies of work of the writers I admired most – and had heard the most about – I began at the beginning.  The writers’ beginnings – their first books.  For example:

Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper.

Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (his American debut).

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

William Faulkner’s Soldier’s Pay.

John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold.

Then I read the writers in chronological order.

And I’m sure many others have done the same.  But my particular tweak on the idea of chronological reading is this:  I reserved the most revered works, the most critically acclaimed, for last:

McCarthy’s Suttree.

Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Beloved.

And when I finally made it to those great works, I had a full understanding of the writers’ capabilities, strengths, weaknesses (in Steinbeck’s case, so many weaknesses that he is now nearly unreadable to me).

But by the time I got to Faulkner and Morrison’s greatest works (interesting because Morrison wrote her graduate thesis on Faulkner), I had become such an ardent fan that, paradoxically, I had almost no desire to read the final work.

I hesitated.  Waited.  In Morrison’s case, six months between Song of Solomon and Beloved.

I both wanted and didn’t want to experience the “greatest work” for the first time.  Those final books had become almost virginal.

I guess this could be considered another obsessive compulsive idea.  And to be honest, I am frustrated with myself when I realize that I’ve started reading a new writer on her second or third book.  I want to stop immediately and go back.

Read the first.  Then the second.  Then the third.

Skip the Pulitzer Prize winner.

And it’s odd with new writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, who’s first book is clearly her greatest so far.  In that case, do I skip it?  Skip the first?  Go to The Namesake, then back?  Does that still count?

I stress about these things.

But then I remember that I’m trying to improve myself, to learn, to evoke.